Web analytics for newsroom and classroom: Essential metrics journalists should know and use

A national survey reveals seven top web metrics that top-level U.S. editors monitor; journalists and journalism students should learn how to read and interpret these key performance indicators, as well as the limitations of each metric.

Conducted by Missouri School of Journalism in 2012, this study surveyed members of American Society of News Editors and the findings were released in 2013. This survey found that most newsrooms monitor web metrics (96.5%) to guide editorial decisions such as planning coverage and deploying resources.

Among other findings, the survey participants reported they mainly monitor the number of unique visitors (85 percent) to the site. The other key performance indicators that the top-level editors monitor include: most read articles (83.6 percent), number of page views (83.2 percent), top pages (82.1 percent), number of visits (80.3 percent), sources of traffic (73.8 percent), and session duration (72.9 percent).

For people who are new to web analytics, here’s a brief explanation of five standard metrics that one can find in most analytics tools:

Unique visitors: per wikipedia, unique visitor refers to the number of distinct individuals requesting pages from the website during a given period, regardless of how often they visit. While this metric is important, there are some caveats:

  • the time frame: a visitor is “unique” only within the time frame you are examining. If you look at your report once a day, then a visitor who comes once that day will be counted as for one unique visit; the same visitor may come five times the next day, but he or she will still be counted as one unique visit for that day. This is especially an issue during breaking news events when people frequently visit/revisit a news site in a short period of time.
  • the accuracy: web analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, identify visitors by the “cookie” on the device with which a visitor comes to the site, which means if the same visitor uses multiple devices to access the site, he or she will be counted as multiple “unique visitors.” This is increasingly the case when people access a news site on PC at home or office, and on mobile devices on the go.

Pageviews: A pageview is an instance of a page being loaded by a browser. The Pageviews metric is the total number of pages viewed; repeated views of a single page are also counted. Other than showing trends, a pageview number alone does not tell us much about site visitors. Web analytics tools allow us to drill down into the pageview reports and examine stats such as who viewed what pages and how they viewed the pages.

Visits: A visit, now called “session” in Google Analytics, is a single time that a person comes to a website, clicks around and views some pages, and then leaves. Again, by itself, the Visits metric does not tell much about visitors. Analytics tools usually provide a myriad of ways to further slice the visits number into segments that are more meaningful; for instance, the number of visits from New York City and on a Chrome browser.

Source: per Google Analytics definition, every visit to a web site has an origin, or source. Possible sources include: “google” (the name of a search engine), “facebook.com” (the name of a referring site), “spring_newsletter” (the name of one of your newsletters), and “direct” (users that typed your URL directly into their browser, or who had bookmarked your site).

The Source data will help newsrooms adjust their efforts in editorial and marketing practices. According to this study, where visitors come from will affect their behaviors on a website. For instance, visitors coming from a referral link will stay longer and read more pages; social media usually send a high volume of visitors, but these visitors usually stay for a very short amount of time.

Session duration: A session is a group of interactions that take place on your website within a given time frame. Generally, newsrooms desire longer sessions so as to serve up more advertising. News pages with extremely short sessions require immediate attention and action – they usually mean contents (articles) on those pages are either not what visitors expected what they would read, or be poorly presented that they instantly drive people away.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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